In 2007 Opera North, composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton combined forces to produce that rarity, a genuinely original and popular opera that appealed consistently to adults and children alike. The good news is that The Adventures of Pinocchio returns to the Grand Theatre next year. In the meantime the same team has brought us Swanhunter, a chamber opera that belies its small forces in the robustness of its musical language.
At the premiere on Friday 13th there was one element lacking: children. The enthusiastic audience belonged almost exclusively to the maturer end of the age spectrum. To that extent I reserve judgement on what is certainly an impressive work, well tailored to the dimensions of the Howard Assembly Room. Vigorously and imaginatively physical, Swanhunter nevertheless relies heavily on narration to tell the story of Lemminkainen’s quest. The score gives the six-piece instrumental ensemble every chance to increase drama and create atmosphere (from the challenge of horn calls to the cracking of percussion), but we wait until the final incantation of Lemminkainen’s Mother (sung with great intensity and superb control by Yvonne Howard) for memorable melody.
Swanhunter stays close to the Finnish myth told in The Kalevala. The exuberantly unthinking Lemminkainen sets off for the North to find a beautiful bride, leaving his Mother acutely anxious for his safety and reassuring her that, until the knife wound he leaves on the door begins to bleed, he will be safe. Louhi, the mother of the pretty girls, sets him three challenges in time-honoured fashion and in his attempt to complete the third, shooting the Swan on Death’s river, the magic of the story really takes hold.
Middleton’s libretto is selfless and economical, reduced in places to simple repeated phrases, easy to follow, but putting heavy demands on the audience’s imagination. One of the main narrative methods uses a choric quartet telling the story and assuming various roles, the ensemble sections nicely varied and uniformly well sung.
Nicholas Sharratt and Graeme Broadbent have great fun growling and snapping as the Dogs of the North as well as finding all the menace of the murderously inadequate Soppy Hat (Sharratt) and providing the cavernous voice of Death (Broadbent). Elizabeth Cragg excels in the eerie high-pitched lines of the wordless song of the Swan and Frances Bourne’s venomous Louhi (instant characterisation with one sweep of a broad-brimmed hat) would have warned off a suitor less brave (or more sensible) than Lemminkainen.
Yvonne Howard’s unfailingly eloquent Mother is a joy throughout and Andrew Rees’ Lemminkainen (all testosterone, unthinking self-confidence and ringing challenges) makes a mockery of first night warnings of indisposition. Stuart Stratford’s precise conducting leads a dynamic reading of the score, with finely-detailed playing from his small band.
Clare Whistler’s direction in Dody Nash’s ingenious, unfussy sets crackles with energy and imagination where possible, but I still need convincing that the narrations of the first two tasks will hold the attention of the target audience of 7-plus children.